Let’s get this out of the way: Mariano Rivera is the best closer in the history of baseball.
There. Said it. Captain Obvious has spoken.
Certainly, the role of the closer has evolved, particularly in the past 35 years. The best relief pitcher in the 1930s, for example, probably was Lefty Grove — who also happened to be the best starter.
And while the nature of relief pitching has changed over the decades, Rivera has defined the position.
Now that the Yankees’ paragon is out for the season and possibly for good, a question arises: Who is the most obvious pick for the best player in history at their particular position? Which player, more than any other, has no equal at his position?
We’ll start with Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by baseball-reference.com. Here are the top two players at each position in terms of career WAR:
C — Johnny Bench 72.3
C — Gary Carter 66.4
1B — Lou Gehrig 108.5
1B — Jimmie Foxx 93.5
2B — Rogers Hornsby 124.6
2B — Eddie Collins 118.5
3B — Mike Schmidt 103.0
3B — Eddie Mathews 91.9
SS — Honus Wagner 126.1
SS — Alex Rodriguez 111.1
LF — Barry Bonds 158.0
LF — Stan Musial 123.4
CF — Willie Mays 150.8
CF — Ty Cobb 145.0
RF — Babe Ruth 178.3
RF — Hank Aaron 137.3
SP — Cy Young 160.8
SP — Walter Johnson 157.8
RP — Mariano Rivera 52.8
RP — Hoyt Wilhelm 44.4
WAR isn’t the end of the discussion. Hornsby, for example, was one of the greatest hitters in history, but I wouldn’t rank him as the best second baseman. I’d rather have Collins or Joe Morgan or Jackie Robinson on my team than Hornsby.
Ted Williams might have been the greatest left fielder, but he missed nearly five seasons while in the military, and that keeps down his WAR total. And I might rather have Stan Musial than either Bonds or Williams.
But if we’re looking solely at Wins Above Replacement, the most dominant player at his position is Babe Ruth. His WAR of 178.3 is 29.9 percent more than the No. 2 player at his position, Hank Aaron. Bonds has a 28.3 percent advantage over Musial, and Rivera is 18.9 percent ahead of Wilhelm. Dennis Eckersley had a WAR of 58.4, but most of that came during his years as a starting pitcher.
Any statistical method that ranks Babe Ruth No. 1 has some validity. The only way to conclude that he was not the best player in history is if you discount him because he played before the major leagues were integrated.
But it’s equally clear that Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher the game has seen. His 608 saves are the all-time record; his ERA is 2.21; his ERA+ (which normalizes a pitcher’s ERA for the league average and his home park) is 206, meaning his ERA was less than half the league average during his career.
That 206 ERA+ is easily the best in history, including starting pitchers. Pedro Martinez is second with a mark of 154.
All of that leaves no doubt about who is the greatest relief pitcher in history.
Questions or comments for By the Numbers? Reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. To “Like” him on Facebook, search for “Greg Jayne – The Columbian”